Army in No Rush to Buy New Radios

By Sandra I. Erwin

Military contractors expect to see details unveiled in the coming weeks on how and when the Army intends to speed up production of new handheld and vehicle radios.

The Army's effort to replace analog radios with digital devices — a program 15 years in the making and currently in low-rate production — is moving along, officials said, but at a much slower pace than previously planned.

The Pentagon approved an acquisition strategy May 1 for the "handheld, manpack, small form fit" (HMS) program, said Joshua Davidson, spokesman for the Army's program executive officer for command, control, communications-tactical. "The Army will move forward to procure rifleman and manpack radios for the full-rate production phase of the HMS program," he said in a statement.

As Congress directed, the competition will be open to non-incumbent vendors. "The Army will create a radio marketplace that leverages commercial technologies and supports continuous innovation," said Davidson. There will be opportunities for "qualified vendors," he said. "The competitive approach will enable the Army to meet its requirements under challenging fiscal conditions."

A draft requests for proposals for the rifleman and manpack radios — scheduled to be released in the "next few weeks" — will detail the path ahead for contract awards and test events, he said.

The schedule the Army has laid out for future radio procurement, experts observed, speaks to the gnawing troubles that continue to plague the tactical radio program. It also illustrates the Army's lingering difficulties in buying new equipment in a time of budget uncertainty.   

The HMS acquisition plan, which has been in the works for nearly two years, sets a goal to begin full-rate production of HMS radios in 2017, orthree years later than what the Army indicated last summer, when it announced that contract awards should be expected in fiscal year 2014.

"The proposed schedule is much later than what we thought a year ago," said Loren Thompson, an industry consultant who has criticized the Army for truncating or slowing down acquisitions of new equipment. The HMS radios are "yet another Army modernization program that is starting to unravel," Thomson said. In the Army's defense, he added, senior leaders have limited room to maneuver as most of its budget is increasingly consumed by fixed costs. "There is not much time [or money] to concentrate on equipment," he said.

The Army's original goal was to produce 193,000 handheld rifleman radios and 66,500 manpack radios. If full-rate production begins in 2017, soldiers may not see the new equipment until 2018. "If the Army has to deploy in Korea or Ukraine before the end of the decade, some troops in the line of fire will still be using the hand signals you saw in Black Hawk Down to communicate,"

Thompsonwrote in last week. Considering the Army's track record with acquisition programs, this one could "simply melt down and disappear," he said. "It may be that U.S. troops get stuck with antiquated communications gear for another generation."

Thompson noted that low-rate orders are not supposed to exceed 10 percent of the total buy. Between now and 2017, the Army would continue to purchase enough quantities of radios from General Dynamics Corp., Rockwell Collins and Thales Defense to ensure the lines are kept warm. The Army already has poured $8.5 billion into development and low-rate production of HMS radios. A Dec 12. memo from defense acquisition chief Frank Kendall gave the Army the green light to order 1,500 manpack radios for the 82nd Airborne Division. The Army so far has ordered approximately 5,600 manpack and 19,000 handheld rifleman radios under a $250 million low-rate production contract.

Non-incumbent radio vendors such as Motorola, Harris and Exelis would be allowed to compete for full-rate production orders, but their radios would first have to go through two to three years of qualification tests in realistic field conditions.Vendors view the HMS program as possibly their last chance to score a big radio contract before military procurement budgets take a steep dive.

The competition for the rifleman radios likely will be among General Dynamics, Thales and Harris. In the manpack arena, Harris would also challenge General Dynamics and Rockwell Collins. Others might compete, but it is too soon to tell, an industry source said. "Nobody knows the real competitive selection criteria at this point."

Harris officials declined to comment on the revised schedule because they have not seen the official documents. "We are excited to have the competitive acquisition strategy move into execution," said a company spokesman. "We look forward to reviewing the draft request for proposals and engaging with the government to determine how to bring these capabilities to bear as quickly as possible."

For the Army, having new radios only fixes one piece of a larger puzzle, as the tactical network the radios would be part of is not coming together as planned.

Commanders who have tested prototype brigade-level networks over the past two years said the systems are too esoteric and complex. The Army's program executive office for the network, Brig.

Gen. Daniel Hughes, has asked for systems to be simplified and made more user friendly. Officials discovered that it takes weeks to set up the brigade’s network plan and have it ready for deployment. Hughes said in March during a presentation that the Army believes it can fix these problems through relatively inexpensive modifications to current hardware and software between now and 2016. “I don't want commanders fighting the network,” he said. “I want the network to support the fight.”

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Manufacturing, Procurement

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